Varda Space Industries will launch the world’s first space factory in early 2023 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission deploying to low Earth orbit (LEO). During the mission, Varda’s space factory will test manufacturing processes and materials for the first time before executing a de-orbit maneuver to re-enter the atmosphere and return the finished product to Earth. Once the first mission is complete, two more factories are already scheduled to be deployed in 2024, with each mission lasting up to three months in orbit from launch to landing.
SpaceX will carry Varda’s space factories aboard a Rocket Lab bus called Photon. Just two months ago, Varda announced a deal with the launch service vehicle manufacturer for the provision of three Photon spacecraft, or possibly four, that will integrate with the in-space manufacturing factories and help carry them to orbit. Today, the two deals bring Varda a step closer to spearheading commercial in-space manufacturing outside of the International Space Station (ISS), ensuring its 120 kilograms (265 pounds) factory reaches orbit by 2023.
Enabling up to 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of high-value finished products to be manufactured in zero-gravity and return to Earth, Rocket Lab’s Photon will position the spacecraft in an operational orbit and provide station-keeping after launching aboard the Falcon 9. In addition, rocket Lab’s Photon will perform multiple burns with its 3D printed Curie engine, acting as a highly capable propulsion system to place Varda’s re-entry capsule – and the material produced in orbit – on a return trajectory to Earth.
As the new space economy gains momentum, commercial microgravity applications like in-space manufacturing are expected to accelerate dramatically. However, until now, only a handful of companies have pioneered additive manufacturing (AM) in zero gravity, and only within the boundaries of the ISS. Startups Made In Space, Tethers Unlimited, nScrypt, Techshot, and 3D Bioprinting Solutions were the only ones to place microgravity 3D printing capabilities in the ISS.
While this research has demonstrated that innovative materials and products that will revolutionize industries on Earth can be created in the consistent microgravity environment of LEO, there has been very little pathway to commercialization. Manufacturing in orbit has been impossible to scale due to the cost, complexity, and regulatory hurdles mainly associated with launch vehicles.
However, Varda remarked in a statement that SpaceX’s new, competitively priced rideshare program, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ’s new streamlined regulatory framework, and the Biden Administration’s executive order on the industrialization of space all work to enable cost-effective access to orbit. This will finally make large-scale space manufacturing, and commercialization of the advancements made on the ISS, a reality.
Aiming to expand its footprint in the space industry, Varda’s proposal to advance the commercialization of on-orbit production is part of a new space technology niche. Similar to how the 3D printing platforms perform on the ISS, Varda will launch its space factories to build products that benefit from sustained microgravity. In addition, the space tech startup will take advantage of the space ecosystem for research and high-tech developments, including products that are difficult to produce due to material volatility or Earth’s gravity, such as high-value and super sensitive materials like semiconductors and pharmaceuticals.
Founded in 2020 by former SpaceX systems engineer Will Bruey, who spent almost six years working on the reusable cargo spacecraft Dragon, and Delian Asparouhov, Varda’s President and a Principal at Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, the startup is headquartered in Torrance, California, where a team of aerospace experts is developing the hardware needed for the space factories. Like other Founders Fund companies, Varda takes its name from the Elf queen who created constellations in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels, a very befitting name for the innovative space tech startup.
Varda is focused on automating most of its manufacturing while partnering with rocket builders to transport materials and technology, thereby removing the complication of sending humans to space. As part of its ongoing expansion, it has raised more than $53 million in funding over three rounds in only eight months, proving that there is enthusiasm for its near-term, pragmatic, and commercially viable approach to space manufacturing.
After inking the Launch Services Agreement with SpaceX on October 11, 2021, Bruey said that a company like Varda would not have been possible five years ago. Instead, today it can economically deliver unique products that can only be manufactured in space because launches are cheaper, space hardware solutions are commoditizing, and smart regulatory progress has been made.
“Since prolonged exposure to zero gravity is not possible on the planet, it’s exciting to use our expertise in spacecraft to bring that brand new capability to industries serving large markets on Earth. I’m excited to use SpaceX as our launch provider because their reusable launch vehicles have proven to be highly reliable and cost-efficient, providing the certainty and unit economics that we rely on to deliver unprecedented access and value to all kinds of new products that can only be manufactured in space,” said Bruey, who is currently CEO of the company.
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